Chapter VIII. A Big Problem
 

"Are you much hurt, Ned?"

Tom Swift bent anxiously over the prostrate form of his chum. A big piece of the burst gun had fallen close to Ned--so close, in fact, that Tom, who saw it as he neared the entrance to the bomb- proof, shuddered as he raced back. But there was no sign of injury on his chum.

"Are you much hurt, Ned?"

The lad's eyes opened. He seemed dazed.

"No--no, I guess not," he answered, slowly. "I--I guess I'm as much scared as hurt, Tom. It was the wind from that big piece that knocked me down. It didn't actually hit me."

"No, I should say not," put in Captain Badger, who had run out toward the two lads. "If it had hit you there wouldn't have been much of you left to tell the tale," and he nodded toward the big piece of metal Tom had seen coming down from the sky. That part of the cannon forming a portion of the breech had buried itself deep in the earth. It had landed close to Ned--so close that, as he said, the wind of it, as well as the concussion, perhaps, had thrown him with enough force to send the breath from him.

"Glad to hear that, old man!" exclaimed Tom, with a sigh of relief. "If you'd been hurt I should have blamed myself."

"That would have been foolish. I took the same chance that you did," answered Ned, as he arose, and limped off between the captain and Tom.

A great silence seemed to have followed the terrific report. And now the officers and soldiers began to recover from the stupor into which the accident had thrown them. Sentries began pouring into the proving grounds from other portions of the barracks, and an ambulance call was sent in.

General Waller's comrades had hurried out to him, and were now leading him away. He did not seem to be much hurt, though, like many others, he had received numerous cuts and scratches from bits of stone and gravel scattered by the explosion, as well as from small bits of metal that were thrown in all directions.

"Are you hurt, General?" asked Admiral Woodburn, as he put his arm about the shoulder of the inventor.

"No--that is to say, I don't think so. But what happened? Did they fire some other gun in our direction by mistake?"

For a moment they all hesitated. Then the Admiral said, gently:

"No, General. It was your own gun--it burst."

"My gun! My gun burst?"

"That was it. Fortunately, no one was killed."

"My gun burst! How could that happen? I drew every plan for that gun myself. I made every allowance. I tell you it was impossible for it to burst!"

"But it did burst, General," went on the Admiral. "You can see for yourself," and he turned around and waved his hand toward the barbette where the gun had been mounted. All that remained of it now was part of the temporary carriage, and a small under-portion of the muzzle. The entire breech, with the great block, had been blown into fragments, so powerful was the powder used. The projectile one watcher reported, had gone about three hundred yards over the top of the barbette and then dropped into the sea, very little of the force of the explosive having been expended on that. A large piece of the gun had also been lost in the water off shore.

"My gun burst! My gun burst!" murmured General Waller, as if unable to comprehend it. "My gun burst--it is impossible!"

"But it did," spoke Admiral Woodburn, softly. "Come, you had better see the surgeon. You may be more seriously injured than you think."

"Was anyone else hurt?" asked the inventor, listlessly. He seemed to have lost all interest, for the time being.

"No one seriously, as far as we can learn," was the answer.

"What of the man who fired the gun?" inquired the General.

"He was blown high into the air," said Tom. "I saw him."

"But he is not injured beyond some bruises," put in one of the ambulance surgeons. "We have taken him to the hospital. He fell on a pile of bags that had held concrete, and they saved him. It was a miraculous escape."

"I am glad of it," said General Waller. "It is bad enough to feel that I made some mistake, causing the gun to burst; but I would never cease to reproach myself if I felt that the man who fired it was killed, or even hurt."

His friends led him away, and Tom and Ned went over to look at what remained of the great gun. Truly, the powder, expending its force in a direction not meant for it, had done terrific havoc. Even part of the solid concrete bed of the barbette had been torn up.

An official inquiry was at once started, and, while it would take some time to complete it (for the parts of the gun remaining were to be subjected to an exhaustive test to determine the cause of the weakness), it was found that there was some defect in the wiring and battery that was used to fire the charge.

The soldier who was to press the button was sure he had not done so, as he had been ordered to wait until General Waller gave the signal from the bomb-proof. But the gun went off before its inventor reached that place of safety. Just what had caused the premature discharge could never be learned, as part of the firing apparatus had been blown to atoms.

"Well, Tom, what do you think of it?" asked Ned, who had now fully recovered from the shock. The two were about to leave the proving grounds, having seen all that they cared to.

"I don't know just what to think," was the answer. "It sure was a big explosion, and it goes to prove that, no matter how many calculations you make, when you try a new powder in a new gun you don't know what's going to happen, until after it has happened-- and then it's too late. It's a big problem, Ned."

"Do you think you can solve it? Are you still going on with your plan to build the biggest cannon ever made?"

"I sure am, Ned, though I don't know that I'll make out any better than General Waller did. It's too bad his was a failure; but I think I see where he made some mistakes."

"Oh, you do; eh?" suddenly exclaimed a voice, and from a nearby parapet, where he had gone to look at one of the pieces of his gun, stepped General Waller. "So you think I made some mistakes, Tom Swift? Where, pray?"

"In making the breech. The steel jackets were of uneven thickness, making the strain unequal. Then, too, I do not think the powder was sufficiently tested. It was probably of uneven strength. That is only my opinion, sir."

"Well, you are rather young to give opinions to men who have devoted almost all their lives to the study of high explosives."

"I realize that, sir; but you asked me for my opinion. I shall hope to profit by your mistakes, too. That is one reason I wanted to see this test."

"Then you are seriously determined to make a gun that you think will rival mine."

"I am, General Wailer."

"For what purpose--to sell to some foreign government?"

"No, sir!" cried Tom, with flashing eyes. "If I am successful in making a cannon that will fire the longest shots on record, I shall offer it to Uncle Sam first of all. If he does not want it, I shall not dispose of it to any foreign country!"

"Hum! Well, I don't believe you'll succeed. I intend to rebuild my gun at once, though I may make some changes in it. I am sure I shall succeed the next time. But as for you--a mere youth--to hope to rival men who have made this problem a life-study--it is preposterous, sir! Utterly preposterous!" and he uttered these words much as he had declared that it was impossible for his gun to burst, even after it was in fragments."

"Come on, Ned," said Tom, in a low voice. "We'll go back home."